Jun 1 • 15M

Suki Chan on deep time, intergenerational care and making art

"If your family has an elderly person, you have a gem."

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Artists, writers, scientists reflect on memory, technology and culture
Episode details

You’re listening with the Bluecoat in Liverpool: a series of podcasts taking the themes of our exhibition programmes as a starting point for 15-minute insights from artists, scientists, writers, educators, storytellers, and more.

In this episode, you'll hear from artist and filmmaker Suki Chan on deep time, intergenerational care and making art.

I'm Suki Chan, and I'm an artist and film director. I use moving image, photography and sound to create immersive experiences that transport people to other realities. I explore nuanced subjects ranging from dementia, sight loss, identity and belonging.

I think for me, art is about showing other people another worldview. We go to great lengths to create this world for others to perceive. I think I've always been interested in consciousness, perception and memory, right from the beginning of my art practice, but certainly perception and memory were really big themes in my early works, and I would delve into my own memories of living between the UK and China and being between two cultures. So that for me was a rich way to explore my heritage and my personal experiences.

I think now I'm opening up and I'm interested to engage with people and discuss what our individual experiences of reality is. Some of the key themes or the key philosophers that I read that really resonated with me, for example, Plato with the allegory of the cave or philosophers like Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty, the idea that there is a world out there and we subjectively experience it and perceive it in a unique way.

It's really difficult to understand what someone feels. I mean, we can express it with language, but that only gets us so far. We can go a step further and I can show people what it's like to be someone who was living with dementia, and for example, waking up in a familiar environment and then not really understanding where you are and having a very strange, surreal, foggy moment where you can't connect with space and time.

And so normally one has those feelings of continuity because I think that's how we are able to do what we need to do. But sometimes with cognitive diseases, these continuities that we're used to breaks down, whether that's in time or space as well. I mean, we also naturally have it sometimes as well… you might go into a room and suddenly go, oh, why, why did I come here? What was I was I doing? And then you're, you're sort of wondering around the room, looking, thinking, well, what what's I doing? I can't remember. So that’s a familiar one that many of us will have experienced, but some people really quite know what's going on with their experiences or they have hallucinations.

Over the past 15 years or so. I've developed a language where I juxtapose different scales or seemingly opposites, for example, big and small; micro and the macro. And I've been doing this a lot and I think I'm starting to understand why this is important. I mean, for me, opposites - they're not completely opposite. They are interrelated, and there's a very interesting symbiotic relationship between the two, but particularly with memory and the juxtaposition of say a human lifespan with geological time, that was poignant for me. And looking at the growth of say a stalactite, which is about a centimetre every hundred years. So in a typical lifespan of ~80 years, it would have grown eight millimetres, and that's really insignificant. If you imagine what one person can achieve in their lifetime, it can sometimes seem like a lot. But at the same time, when you think about geological time, which is vast and immense, our little place seems really, really insignificant.

So for me, I wanted to oscillate between that, a feeling that humans are really important because often the narrative is that we're super-duper, we’re amazing, we've achieved all these things, but it's really useful every now and then to zoom out as it were, you know, like you're doing a cityscape when you zoom out completely, you don't see the humans. And if you were to zoom out in time as well, we wouldn't even be on the scale if you're thinking of human time in terms of seconds, minutes, hours, days. But what if you think about time in terms of millions of years? And so I think it's this shift in perspective that for me really helps when we're thinking about our relationship with each other or our relationship with the wider environment, because often I think we see nature as something that we can exploit or dominate.

I think the feeling of not having enough time is greater now than it was say, 50 years ago. This constant rush that we all feel that's often the perspective that people find really refreshing with Wendy Mitchell’s narrative of how her life is now with dementia. When she says that dementia has given back her time.

It's something that I think as individuals, we perhaps need to actively take back some control over because there is this sense that time is ticking away. I think that is a societal construction that we feel that time is ticking and that we're not doing enough. I feel it's very intense. I think maybe that's why within my work. it's really important that it is a space that people can enter into. And there isn't that sense of time just whizzing by without you being able to really understand or contemplate what that meaning is, of that moment that you're experiencing.

Having met Wendy and having been in dialogue with Wendy for almost five years now, I think, I think my views of technology have changed. I've seen the positive aspects that it's given her. Wendy uses her smartphone, her camera and her computer to document what otherwise would be lost because of the dementia.

Knowing who she met yesterday, what she talked about in an interview with her, if it's not written down immediately or recorded in some way, then she can't recall it and it's lost to her. With Wendy, she can't recognise that something is what it is unless she's got a visual cue to remind her. So for example, when she looked at her cupboards in her kitchen, she sees the shape of the cupboard, she sees the whiteness of the cup of doors, but she can't recall or remember that these are cupboards and therefore there are objects within them that she might need in the kitchen.

I think the way that we compartmentalise a lot of these things is not very helpful because we expect that young people won't want to hang out with elderly people, or we expect the adults should go and do these things on their own. And because I've not experienced that in my younger years, I’ve looked after my elderly grandmother for many years as a child, and I even took my kids along to the residency when I did the residency in Crewe and it was phenomenal, the elderly people love my kids. And I think it opened up a new aspect that wasn't there previously. So the idea of different generations hanging out together is so, so important, and the picture that we paint for a lot of elderly people is one of isolation and dependency. It needn't be that because elderly people still have a lot to give. They need to be supported, but actually there's a really beautiful proverb which literally translates as, ‘if your family has an elderly person, you have a gem.’

I think that's really incredibly beautiful to think of it in those terms rather than, oh, you know, Dad or mom isn't the person that she used to be…

A psychologist that I worked with many years ago, Kevin O’Regan, he describes the world as an outside memory store because when we look at the world, we're not purely receiving the signal from our senses. We're looking at the world from inside. We're inferring what we're seeing. So we're relying on our memory anyway, but what we're seeing in the world then triggers us to formulate the picture of reality.

So that's something that happens ordinarily within perception. It’s just that sometime,  these connections break down with cognitive impairments and diseases. So having these memory aids are really helpful for people living with dementia, and I think the way that Wendy came up with this coping mechanism is really ingenious and it's a testament to her remarkable brain. Although it is diseased, it is remarkably resilient, and we might like to think of people who have dementia as having a brain that is dying or diseased, but actually there is also growth as well. Wendy is making new memories too. She’s learning new skills. So there is this incredible development going on in her brain, as well as what dementia is doing within her brain.

Going into the library is wonderful and finding books that you would never have dreamt of borrowing is an experience of learning. I often used to go into a library thinking that I would get one book out and then I end up seeing on the shelves other books that, that fascinated me just from the title, and that wouldn't happen, say on your laptop because that's not how we search for on a computer. So, the experience of just coming across something on the trolley because someone's returned it, that's not going to happen. I think those scenarios are really beautiful and then you end up finding things that you weren't looking for in the first place. I think there is a need for varied experiences and it's not about one over the other. [SM2] 

You can actually write over your own memory. So, with false memories, they found that if someone suggests something, they could actually help you to rewrite your memory, often without you understanding that. So our memories are fallible.

One of the negative sentiments of people living with dementia is that they often feel like they're not understood, or their voices aren't heard, or they are misunderstood in, in the way that society pathologises dementia and it doesn't help them. It isolates them and deskills them. By working with people with dementia, I suppose I want to show another reality of this disease that we're very frightened off, and showing them that it isn't a death sentence. It isn't the end. It is a journey.

I suppose, because I've known Wendy for quite a long time now, maybe I've internalised her struggles. If I could engage people and help that understanding, then I'd love to do that because that's quite important of understanding who we are, understanding ourselves and our relationship with others.

As I learn more about consciousness, I understand that it’s also a social construct. We are social beings, so that feeling of wanting to describe our own subjective experiences through language, through arts, etcetera, is inherent in being a human being, and so I think it's really key that we continue to subjectively describe how we're feeling inside.

You've been listening with the Bluecoat produced by George Maund, Marie-Anne McQuay and Sam Mercer with sounds by Nil00. Thank you to Garfield Western Foundation for supporting the series and our core funders, Arts Council England, Liverpool City Council, and Culture Liverpool.

Our public programmes rely on grants and donations, and you can support us thebluecoat.org.uk/donate

Further reading

Plato’s Allegory of the cave
Martin Heidegger: A Very Short Introduction
Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Phenomenology of Perception
Wendy Mitchell: What I Wish People Knew About Dementia
Suki Chan’s website
Suki Chan: FOG (360º video featuring Wendy Mitchell)
Where The Arts Belong
J Kevin O’Regan - Why Red Doesn’t Sound Like A Bell: Understanding the Feel of Consciousness